How the Compaq Deskpro 386 was once the fastest PC in the world

It might not look it, but an unremarkable beige box like this one, with a floppy disk drive and parallel printer port, used to be the fastest PC in the world.

Thirty years ago in 1986, the original Compaq Deskpro 386 was the first computer to make the jump from 16-bit to 32-bit computing. It did so by having an Intel 80386 processor inside.

Launched in 1985, the original 80386 (aka 80386DX) was a game changer. Composed of 275,000 interconnected transistors on a one centimetre square chip, the 80386 introduced a new 32-bit architecture backwards compatible with previous Intel x86 processors.

16 MHz 386 speed

IBM might have pioneered the personal computer, but Compaq beat it to the 32-bit punch with the 386. It became the first company to launch a compatible 80386-based machine when it unveiled the Deskpro 386 on September 9, 1986.

“Along with its 16 MHz 386 speed,” said the original release, “the Compaq Deskpro 386 offers features including up to 130 megabytes of fixed disk storage with average access times of 19 milliseconds, up to 40 megabytes of fixed disk backup, which provides four times the capacity and twice the speed of the company’s previous fixed disk drive backup system, and up to 14 megabytes of RAM.”

Intel 386 processor 1985
An original Intel 80386 processor via commons.wikimedia.org. Source: CPU collection Konstantin Lanzet.

You can see how far we’ve come when you look at one of today’s fastest desktop PCs. The quirky, diamond-shaped HP Omen X, for example, can be configured with a 4 GHz Intel Core i7-6700K processor, up to 32 gigabytes of memory, a 3 terabyte hard drive and the latest NVIDIA GeForce GTX 1080 graphics card.

While the GTX 1080 is 4K-capable (3840 x 2160 pixels) and VR-ready, the Compaq Deskpro 386 came with an Enhanced Graphics Adapter (EGA). This ancient bit of kit could display 16 simultaneous colours (from a 64-colour palette) at a lowly resolution of 640 x 350 pixels. The VGA standard wouldn’t be introduced until 1987 and even then, it wouldn’t become a core PC spec until the early nineties.

The most powerful computer on the market

Nevertheless, powered by its 386 processor, Compaq’s PC was cutting edge. As Businessweek reported at the time: “The Deskpro 386 has emerged as the most powerful personal computer on the market. It runs IBM PC software two to three times faster than IBM’s top-of-the-line PC/AT and can use 10 times the internal memory.”

The success of the Compaq Deskpro 386 had a lasting effect, giving rise to a whole army of PC clones that chipped away at IBM’s early dominance of the computing market. The 80386, meanwhile, proved popular until the 32-bit 80486 chip superceded it in 1989. The processors even got blasted into orbit aboard the Hubble Space Telescope and the Space Shuttle.

Thirty years ago, the Compaq Deskpro 386 changed the face of computing for the better. There aren’t many PCs that can say the same.

Main image: Public domain photo via Flickr

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